NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - INSIDE SLANT
One thing that everyone can agree on is that the early second-quarter collision between New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker had a major impact on the end result of the AFC Championship Game Sunday afternoon in Denver.
Talib limped to the sideline and eventually the locker room with a knee injury that kept him from the remainder of the game.
Without its No. 1 shutdown cornerback, New England's pass defense was borderline defenseless the rest of the day as Peyton Manning piled up 400 yards through the air and marched up and down the field with ease on the way to the 26-16 victory.
"As it turned out, that was a key play in the game," head coach Bill Belichick said in the immediacy of the disappointing loss. "I thought it was a key play in the game. I'll have to take a look at it on the film. It was a key play in the game. I'll say he's a key player for us."
All of that is a matter for record and without opinion.
The problem lies in the interpretation of the hit that took place in the middle of the field, now that all parties involved have been able to watch replays and voice their thoughts on the incident.
Was it simply the result of a common "pick" or "rub" play, one that so many offenses, including the Patriots themselves use with regularity? Talib was chasing Demaryius Thomas in one direction while Welker was crossing in the other. The undersized receiver hit the oversized corner low and the rest is history.
But after watching the tape, Belichick was a bit more strong in his opinions of the play in question Monday morning, regardless of the fact that no flag was thrown on the field.
"I was asked about the hit on Talib and I feel badly for Aqib the way that play turned out. I went back and watched it, which I didn't have a chance to do yesterday. I think it was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib; no attempt to get open," Belichick said in the middle of his opening comments of his end-of-season press conference at Gillette Stadium. "I'll let the league handle the discipline on that play; it's not for me to decide, but it's one of the worst plays I've seen. That's all I'm going to say about that."
There's little ambiguity in the comments Belichick had for his former receiver Welker, who caught so many passes and ran so many rub plays in his six seasons in New England.
Some veteran Patriots appeared to agree strongly with their coach.
"When I saw it, just as a player in general, Wes, was he doing his job? I'm sure he was to a certain degree," defensive end Andre Carter said. "I think the hit could've (been) cleaner. I've been around a lot of football to see that.
"At the end of the day, it was a nasty play. We'll see what the league does."
Others weren't quite as critical.
"I don't think anybody in this league does things deliberately to hurt another player," safety Steve Gregory said. "I don't think anybody really plays that way, especially at this level of football with two great football teams with the Broncos and ourselves. I don't know."
Gregory did reinforce the fact that without Talib, the Patriots secondary was at a major disadvantage through the final three quarters of the loss.
"Aqib's a heck of a football player for us," safety Steve Gregory said. "He matches up against what we consider the top receiver week in and week out. He's a leader, he's a competitive guy, a guy that's going to go out and give you everything he's got, so you never want to lose a guy like that. But at the same time, other guys have to step up like we've done all year.
"By no means is it easy to replace a guy like Aqib so, yeah, it was tough to see him go down."
While Belichick seems quite convinced that Welker's hit was a dirty play aimed at injuring Talib, the receiver defended himself in postgame remarks.
"It was one of those plays where it's kind of a rough play and I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided," Welker said. "It wasn't a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that.
"I hope he's OK. He's a great player and a big part of their defense."
Belichick and others see it one way. His former receiver Welker and others see it another way. They just don't see eye to eye. Much like they didn't last spring in contract negotiations that led to Welker fleeing New England via free agency and landing with Manning in Denver.
Like Sunday's now controversial hit, it's all water under a burned bridge.
Welker and the Broncos are in the Super Bowl. Belichick and the Patriots are in the offseason.
And the rest of the NFL is left to debate one of the more controversial plays from championship Sunday that played a role in Denver moving on and New England losing its second straight AFC title game.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - NOTES, QUOTES
--For the second-straight AFC title game, New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib was lost to an injury and that left the Patriots pass defense very much undermanned. A year ago that allowed Anquan Boldin to put up two second-half touchdowns to help the Ravens to advance to the Super Bowl. This time around Talib collided with Wes Welker crossing the field and left the game with what was announced as both rib and knee injuries. He went to the X-ray room and the locker room and never returned to the game.
After the game, Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas was asked if the hit on Talib that sent him to the locker room was meant as a message.
"I don't know if it was a message. It was kind of like a pick play. It was a big collision and it knocked him out of the game," Thomas said.
It also put a ton of pressure on New England's remaining corners, as Peyton Manning took advantage of second-year starter Alfonzo Dennard and rookie Logan Ryan to the tune of 400 yards, 134 of which went to Thomas.
--Quarterback Tom Brady never really got much going for the Patriots offense in the first half of Sunday's AFC title loss in Denver. A big part of that was a failure to convert on third down.
The Patriots failed on their first two third-down attempts (five yards, three yards) on a pair of three-and-outs to open the game. Brady's unit would actually go just two for six on third downs in the first half, which was even inflated with a conversion on third-and-five from their own 25 on the final, meaningless play of the half with Denver up 13-3. Things got better as the Patriots improved to four for six in the second half to finish a respectable six of 12 for the game, but the damage was done early.
"We just didn't do enough on third down to stay on the field," Brady said. "It's hard to be productive when you're not making third downs. Third-down conversions early weren't good."
--Defensive end Rob Ninkovich was on the other end of the third-down problems for the Patriots. New England just couldn't get Peyton Manning and Co. off the field in Denver.
After forcing the Broncos to punt on their opening drive on their second third-down attempt, New England allowed Manning to convert all three third-down plays on the way to an early second-quarter touchdown. Denver was five of eight on third downs (63 percent) in the first half to build the 13-3 lead with no drive that lasted fewer than seven plays and three that went for 72 yards or longer. The Broncos also converted on each of their third downs on a 13-play, 7:08 drive to open the third quarter that resulted in a touchdown.
In between a punt to open their day and a final drive that concluded with the end of the game Denver scored on six straight drives from late in the first quarter to midway through the fourth quarter as the Patriots defense simply had no answers, including on third down.
"You can't win when you can't get off the field; it's basic fundamental football," Ninkovich lamented. "You've got to get off of the field. They do a good job of keeping the sticks moving with various formations and patterns that they run with good receivers and a good tight end."
--Wide receiver Julian Edelman leads a list of potential New England free agents that also includes No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib and running back LeGarrette Blount. All have talked about how much they love playing for the Patriots and that they'd love to return to the team. But there is no guarantee that any or all of them will be back.
A year after seeing little interest in free agency, Edelman has a 100-catch season under his belt and might garner more attention on the open market. Quarterback Tom Brady clearly hopes that his good friend and only reliable target this season returns, but knows that's far from a certainty in the business world of the NFL.
"He had an incredible season," Brady said Monday morning in his weekly interview with sports radio WEEI in Boston. "No one could have ever predicted what he could accomplish for our team. I mean, he was one guy that was so consistent and dependable for us. I'm just proud of him because of his mental toughness and maturity and his work ethic. He spent a lot of time watching over the last four years. And to finally get an opportunity where he could be an every-down player, and the way he contributed to our team, especially in a game like yesterday where he made so many great plays for us, it was great to see.
"Free agency and stuff, that takes time to develop. And I know how difficult a task it is for our team to make decisions like this, and we've had to make a lot of tough decisions over the years. All those things sort themselves out. Coach Belichick is the one that makes all those tough decisions. I love (Edelman), he's one of my best pals, I spent a lot of time with him. I'm just proud of him for everything that he's accomplished. He deserves the best."
--Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been added to the Pro Bowl, replacing Denver's Matt Prater who'll miss the game with the Broncos playing in the Super Bowl. Gostkowski led the NFL with a Patriots-record 158 points during the regular season, hitting on 38 of his 41 field-goal attempts while also serving as a weapon on kickoffs with 65 touchbacks, second-most in the league.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--OL Josh Kline did not play against the Broncos, the only player other than backup QB Ryan Mallett who suited up but did not see action.
--DT Isaac Sopoaga was a healthy scratch against Denver, as the veteran was inactive for both postseason games.
--LB Steve Beauharnais did not make the trip to Denver as the rookie linebacker was left behind due to an illness.
--WR Kenbrell Thompkins did not play against the Broncos due to a hip injury and a concussion.
--CB Aqib Talib was knocked out of the loss to the Broncos in the first quarter with a knee injury when he collided with WR Wes Welker on a pick play in the middle of the field. Talib underwent X-rays and returned to the sideline, but did not play the rest of the way.
--CB Alfonzo Dennard was shaken up with a shoulder injury against Denver, but played through the injury that has been bothering him for weeks.
REPORT CARD vs. BRONCOS
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus - New England hadn't needed much of a passing attack to advance past the Colts, but when Tom Brady and his troops were called upon in Denver the group couldn't get the job done. The fact that Brady's first four throws of the day were at Julian Edelman, Austin Collie, Matthew Mulligan and Matthew Slater - the latter three a little-used veteran, a backup blocking tight end and a career special teamer. Brady himself also missed chances to make some big plays through the air when he overthrew both Edelman and Collie wide open down the field. Thanks to a couple too-little, too-late drives, Brady finished with respectable numbers completing 24 of 38 passes for 277 yards with one score and no interceptions for a 93.9 passer rating. Really, though, the aerial attack never found any rhythm as Edelman was the only consistent target with 10 catches for 89 yards and the long touchdown. Logan Mankins also gave up a fourth-and-three sack with the Patriots at the Denver 29 trailing 20-3 later in the third quarter that essentially ended the game.
RUSHING OFFENSE: D - The Patriots had rushed for more than 600 yards in the previous three games with LeGarrette Blount leading the charge. The big back's first two attempts of the day went for no gain and one yard on New England's two opening three-and-outs. It never got much better. Blount finished with just five carries for six yards a week after he had four rushing scores and 166 yards. Shane Vereen led the way with four rushes for a relatively meaningless 34 yards, 29 of which came in the second half. Brady added a 5-yard touchdown run. All told, New England had 16 carries for 64 yards, but the day wasn't even nearly that impressive on the ground as the Broncos' top-10 run defense, led by Terrance Knighton, never let the Patriots ground game get going.
PASS DEFENSE: F - It was going to be a tough matchup for the Patriots pass defense trying to slow down Peyton Manning's record-setting attack even before New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib left with an injury. When that happened, it was a complete losing proposition. Thanks to warm, relatively windless weather, Manning was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted through the air. He tied a championship game record by completing 32 of his 43 attempts for 400 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 118.4 passer rating. He spread the ball around to eight different targets, led by eight catches for 85 yards to TE Julius Thomas and seven receptions for 134 yards and a score to Demaryius Thomas. Eric Decker added five for 73, while TE Jacob Tamme had two for 24, one of which was a touchdown. With Talib on the sideline, Manning attacked and took advantage of second-year corner Alfonzo Dennard and rookie Logan Ryan, as well as rookie linebacker Jamie Collins in coverage of Julius Thomas. While the coverage was struggling, the Patriots pass rush was doing nothing to help the cause. New England didn't get a single sack or even a QB hit on Manning all day, and recorded a mere one hurry as ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were a total non-factor. Working out of the shotgun most of the day, Manning showed the Patriots just why his team broke so many records this season, and only a couple fortunate red-zone stops kept this from a blowout.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus - The Patriots allowed the Broncos to rush for 280 yards in the wind and cold of Foxborough in the regular season win over Denver. The unit did a much better job on the ground this time around, even if the overall defense was being torched through the air. The Broncos ran it 28 times for 107 yards on Sunday for a 3.8-yard average, but even those pedestrian numbers are inflated by a single Knowshon Moreno draw for 28 yards on third-and-10 in the second quarter. Take out that one mistake in a passing situation and New England held the home team to under three yards a carry. That was the best effort of almost any area of the team in this tough road loss.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus - With his 47-yard field goal, Stephen Gostkowski made just about the only play on special teams of the day for New England. The Patriots did not have a return as seven kickoffs and one punt resulted in touchbacks. Ryan Allen did a solid job returning from a shoulder injury to score a 49-yard net on his three punts, all downed inside the 20. New England had a couple tries to make comeback plays in the kicking game, though, and failed. Gostkowski's pooch kickoff in the fourth quarter was handled pretty easily by Trindon Holliday while an ensuing onside attempt took a huge bounce that made it easy to handle for Eric Decker. On an afternoon where the Patriots could have used a big play in the kicking game, it just never came in limited chances.
COACHING: D - The Patriots got outplayed in all three phases of the game and on both sides of the ball. Some of that was obviously a failure to match personnel and execution, but some had to do with the game plan. New England had some curious plays early in the passing game with Brady throwing to little-used weapons. No reason for Pro Bowl special teams captain Matthew Slater to be thrown to on a deep ball down the right sideline on third down on the second drive of the game. Defensively, New England never adjusted to the loss of Talib or the fact that Manning was shredding the secondary. The unit also never got any pressure and failed to scheme to improve in that area. Coach Bill Belichick also made a questionable decision to go for first down on a fourth-and-three play from the Broncos 29 in the third quarter with his team down 20-3. Down three scores, a field goal would have made it a two-score game and kept things alive. When Brady was sacked, it made a comeback attempt quite a long shot. On a day where just about everything New England did was a failure, the coaches were clearly a part of that as they failed to come up with any answers or adjustments to be more competitive.